Picking up Clay
After teaching science for eight years, two on a sailboat on the east coast, and six in St. Louis, Missouri in a typical classroom, I went back to school to earn a Master’s of Science in Art Education because I serendipitously found art in the form of making pots at the age of 35. The short story of my finding clay is as follows: Vic Bassman, the high school ceramics teacher where I taught science was a friend of mine. He teased me constantly, saying, “Come make pots . . . come make pots, you will really like it!” And my answer was always absolutely not, until the day he said, “Steve, you are a cheapskate . . . you will never have to buy another Christmas gift if you would just come make a pot.” Thirty seconds later, I was addicted to clay. Two years, and thousands of pots later, Vic was thinking about retirement, and I decided I wanted to grow up and be just like him and teach ceramics. So I applied for a fellowship to attend the Master’s in Art Education and art certification program at Missouri State University.
The high school where I was teaching had an incredible sabbatical program, such that with a fellowship and the graduate assistantship I had at Missouri State, I made more money on sabbatical in school than I would have earned teaching. There was no financial hardship and no problem with transition, because at the time, by most people’s standards, I was already a professional student.
Luckily for me, I have an incredible wife, Alissa Donaldson, also a ceramic artist, who gave me the ultimate gift at the age of 43, of getting the chance to “quit life” and earn my MFA. Without her support, the emotional and financial strain of day to day living would have been a bit more difficult.
I ended up studying for my MFA at Arizona State University (ASU) with Kurt Weiser, Randy Schmidt, and Jeanne Otis, where again with a scholarship, a fellowship, teaching, and running the university galleries, my education was a lot more than free.
The artwork I make has come somewhat full circle. When I started making clay objects, I was a science teacher teaching environmental science, astronomy, and oceanography. My thought process at the time involved environmental concern conceptually and somewhat in the process of making. A lot of what I made ended up in the slop bucket, as I didn’t want the permanence of fired clay. Later, while in graduate school at ASU, while my work continued to include things geologic, oceanographic, and sometimes involving mathematics, I abandoned a few of my tenants due to some of the processes that I used. For instance, the installation work that included plastic-cast stoneware was simply me placing slip in a plastic bag, giving it a twist, and firing it plastic and all (1). Even though I know it is but a pittance compared to the pollution that industry puts out, I cringed then, and still cringe when I think of the smell and what I was doing to the planet when making that work. The other process that I used that also made me wince was the sand-cast glaze pieces. Because of the firing process, only one layer of work could be fired at a time in the huge kilns at ASU, which has certainly added to my carbon footprint over time. My work now is much more environmentally friendly.
My secondary teaching experience also influences the art that I make because of the science I was teaching. For years I reveled in the beauty of the natural world from the macro level of mountain ranges and the vastness of the ocean to the micro level of looking at both organic and inorganic things under microscopes. The teaching of science had me sailing and doing science in the North Atlantic, working on research vessels in the Gulf of Mexico, taking students to study the rainforest and oceans in Central American (Panama, Costa Rica, and Belize), and taking a summer job running a dive shop in Tonga in the South Pacific. I had all of those experiences and more because of my need to be able to tell students stories of actual science, instead of having them read it out of a book.
In 2009 I was invited to put together an exhibition at the Fort Worth Community Art Center where I installed six pieces of work including Blue on Black I. The sand-cast glaze blue parts of this piece were fired in 45 separate firings, to cone 04, in a worn out kiln over a period of 30 days. I crash cooled the kiln, reloaded, and refired as fast as the kiln could. Directly after putting this piece up in the gallery, I traveled to Cuba where I had been invited for a residency, workshop, and an exhibition. Upon arriving in Cuba, I immediately realized my art is not important enough to warrant the kind of misuse of natural resources Blue on Black I required. I obviously needed to change the way I worked. However, while this need for transition gave me the freedom to work on some of the many ideas I have had over the years, it was paralyzing in that I just didn’t want to fire any more clay. So I went back to only firing the pieces that I thought mature enough to keep around. Instead of firing new work, I have used and reused the work I had made in the past eight years: including close to eight hundred teapots. I recycled old work by repurposing some of the multiples made for a different context. An example of this would be the 25,000 handmade marbles created for the piece Green on Black I in 2007. I have used them in different ways multiple times, with the last being a piece entitled Black and White XXII that was in a show at the LA ArtCore in 2014. And this I could rationalize for several years, until about two months ago, when I realized I needed to make something new, and I started using unfired clay (90 Miles Away). While I’m excited about what seem like unlimited possibilities for this way of making clay objects, I still have yet to work out a process that can be used that travels well enough to exhibit, other than an ephemeral installation.
the author Steve Hilton is a ceramic artist and professor at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. To learn more about Hilton and his work, visit www.stevenhilton.com.
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